Fats. Metronome Man’s built like a cue stick, long and lean. Short-cropped, thinning hair gives his head the aspect of a stick’s felt-y tip. Loose-limbed in loose jeans and a limp black T, the neck gaping open, he shoves up the long sleeves to the elbow. A sparse chestnut-colored goatee, no more than filigree, make his cheeks seem more hollow, his eyes deeper set and the chin sharper, skin paler, as white and translucent as eggshell china. Minnesota
Metronome Man doesn’t rack. He doesn’t break. Hazard doesn’t enter in. He places shots with arithmetic precision.
Circling the table, he places balls in a concise configuration cribbed from notes scribbled on small pieces of graph paper. Or not. Sometimes, brows knitted in a ridge over his eyes, an unexpressed, inexpressible idea drives him round and round the table as he prepares the perfect sequence of shots to test his control of speed, aim and position.
Metronome Man makes do with the balls and triangle that come with the table rental. He uses his own cue stick which he stows in a locker at the hall. He hauls around a backpack that conceals other essential implements: a plastic ruler and triangle—the kind kids use in geometry class, a cloth to wipe his hands, a chunk of chalk to mark the table with tiny scratches to ensure accurate replication of shots. He wipes his hands often. He transfers the chalk to a pocket and uses it before every shot.
Balls twirl and spin, bobble, click, suspended three like pawnbrokers globes in his long-fingered hands. The cue ball gets special treatment, rolled between his palms as if to warm it and placed on the table last. Another walk around the table, at the same speed, always at the same speed, not fast but you know he’s been around this table before. On the final turn, he picks up his cue stick.
At 6:30 PM, the tangy, not-quite-clean smell of disinfectant masks the stink stale smoke, spilt beer and sweat. A pall of fresh smoke, exhaust and wet asphalt rises from the street below and wafts in through open windows along with the white noise of bumper-to-bumper Friday night traffic punctuated by the blat of car horns and the occasional scream of sirens. Large sconces mounted on cylindrical columns form dim puddles of orange-yellow light made dimmer still by the sunset reflecting off a Hopper-red brick wall just outside the wide, dirty windows. Dusky shadow fills the windows on the opposite side.
Brighter lights, hooded, shine straight down on clutches of players huddled around maybe five, maybe six of the twenty tables in the cavernous hall. A happy hour bunch from a nearby office mobs one table. A strobe flashes at odd intervals as the company shutterbug records the event.
Narrow, wooden ledges near the tables hold sweating pitchers of fresh beer, shooters, cocktails and the odd mineral water. Motown and mellow 80s tunes, the girl at the bar dressed vaguely like Pocahontas has been spinning the hits all afternoon, segues into the nocturnal industrial drone. The night shift DJ is in the house.
The sounds of the game form an erratic counterpoint to the gut thumping back-beat: A loud crack as someone breaks racked balls with gusto or machine guns a ball into a far corner pocket. A louder crack as a ball leaves the table, strikes the hardwood floor, bounces and rolls followed by thudding footsteps. Groans, an angry shout, a squeal, raucous laughter signals the near miss of a sure thing. Damn! A bridge rattles and bangs to the floor. Two balls pocketed by a stroke of sheer luck, a rebel yell rips through the hall.
Metronome Man doesn’t drink. He doesn’t play. He practices. Alone.
He practices at the same table every time, the surface superior, the tiny marks still visible from the last time. Even if the happy hour bunch crowds him on one side. Even if the shot he’s set up—center table to the left corner pocket above the head string—requires that he use the congested side of the table.
He aces the set up one last time stick in hand. Ready, he doesn’t lean, he jackknifes cleanly but slowly at the waist. Torso stretched horizontal to the table, chin tilted and aligned to the stick, he is poised like a jockey over the neck of a horse down to the wire and going full out, still except for the eyes. The eyes flicker between the cue ball and the object, linger longer on the gleaming white. The right forearm swings from the elbow slowly at first, now like a pendulum, gains speed and power, now like a piston.
He strokes, smooth, smooth, smooth, pauses once, the tip of the stick a skin’s breadth from the hard surface of the cue ball, high of center, so briefly he barely breaks cadence. He strokes back again, smooth, then strikes. Strokes back again.
The cue ball whispers soundlessly across the felt. Sht, sssssh, tick, ssssh, tock.
In that moment, the stroke thrown, the cue ball launched, his body unfolds then, vertical, becomes utterly immobile. Now he doesn’t even blink. He watches expressionlessly as the object ball drops into the pocket. He watches the cue ball, follows its path as it curves back and comes to rest. He does not yell, he does not smile, he does not nod smugly.
He sets up the shot again. And again. And again.
Once, during his preparatory revolutions, a player steps in his way and hunches over her stick. The office crew offer helpful advice like chatter in the infield, “Sa-wing, batta, batta.”
An electric metronome stops at the lightest pressure of a single finger. Released, it continues its inexorable tick-tock.
So Metronome Man stops. He holds his stick lightly in two hands, adopts an at-ease pose, waits and with an almost reverent expression on his face looks over the shoulder of the player who makes and misses her shot. “Oooooooo! Bad luck, Claudine!” She grimaces for the camera, the strobe flashes, then steps aside without looking over her shoulder. She doesn’t even know he’s there. Metronome Man resumes his preparations.
It happens that Metronome Man sometimes misses a shot. Not that you’d notice. He doesn’t blink. He watches expressionlessly as the object ball caroms off the cushion and spins away. He watches the cue ball, follows its path as it curves back and comes to rest.
Hit or miss, all shots count. Metronome Man sets up the table again.